SCAT to take a ‘MOD’ approach, with on-demand services replacing a number of fixed routes

County staff hopes to implement changes by spring of 2021

This is the proposed new SCAT service map, with the four MOD zones shaded in purple. Image courtesy Sarasota County

For years, Sarasota County commissioners directed staff to pursue initiatives that could reduce the county’s mass transit expenses.

In late August 2017, the board received an unsolicited letter from a firm that was interested in implementing a regional transportation system. That led to commission approval in January 2018 for staff to issue a Request for Information, which was designed to help staff members figure out how best to operate the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus system more efficiently while providing better service to the public.

Finally, on Oct. 21, then-interim SCAT Director Jane Grogg won the commissioners’ unanimous approval to go “MOD,” so to speak. (Grogg was named SCAT director the next day.)

As a result of staff’s work with the Tindale Oliver consulting firm of Tampa, Grogg pointed out, a new Mobility On Demand (MOD) service will be created to ensure that everyone who has been using the county’s bus system will continue to have access to transportation. However, their trips might entail a driver picking them up at their home, instead of their having to take the bus. The primary factor is that the service can be provided within SCAT’s budget.

“Anyone that had some kind of service before will continue to have access to service [and] there should be additional … flexibility options [and a] faster response time,” Grogg told the commissioners.

This graphic provides more details about the Mobility On Demand plans. ‘TD’ stands for transit disadvantaged, while ‘ADA’ stands for Americans with Disabilities Act. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As part of the proposal, SCAT staff plans to eliminate a number of its fixed bus routes with low demand. Instead, four Mobility On Demand (MOD) zones will be implemented, Grogg said. A person will be able to use a mobile app, the internet or a call center to reserve a trip, with the target that each rider will have to wait no longer than 30 minutes for the driver to show up.

Persons desiring to do so will be able to connect to a fixed-route bus from what staff is calling “Mobility Hubs,” she added.

The four MOD zones are Lido-Longboat-St. Armands keys; North Port; Siesta Key; and Venice-Englewood, Grogg noted.

The goal is to implement the new service in the March-April 2021 time frame, Grogg said.

“How much of a better experience is that?” Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out after Grogg’s presentation.

“You’ve got to be able to move with the times,” Chair Michael Moran added.

And Ziegler already was looking farther into the future: “I think in five years, maybe less, you’re going to have these [on-demand] cars driving themselves,” Ziegler said. “They’re going to be timed at the lights; they’re going to be timed with the car in front of them. … You’ll be able to go on the highway … 100 mph, with an inch between cars, eventually, without accidents.”

“I think we need to state why we’re doing this,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said of the proposal Grogg presented that day. “What we’re trying to do is spend the same amount of money and provide better service.”

When she has talked to constituents about the efforts put into improving SCAT through the type of on-demand responses that Grogg discussed, Detert continued, “They’re like, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it; it’s too amazing.’” Detert added, “I think they will be amazed if it all comes true as we planned. So far, so good.”

“I think that’s a great summary,” Grogg told Detert.

One slide Grogg showed the commissioners pointed to survey answers regarding persons’ interest in using SCAT if certain improvements were made. If more direct service were provided to attractions such as malls, beaches and the downtown areas of the county’s municipalities, then 51.6% of survey respondents said they would be likely to use SCAT.

This is a graph showing answers to one question in a staff survey about use of SCAT services. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With a same-day reservation system utilizing a curb-to-curb service, such as Uber or Lyft, then 49.5% of the respondents indicated their likelihood of using SCAT, the slide also noted.

A consultant’s study of the SCAT system showed that the annual operating cost of the current bus route network is $10,560,138. That analysis said the county could save $2,494,561 by implementing changes in the service.

The MOD program would require 18 vehicles, consultant Tindale Oliver suggested, with anticipation of 66,034 annual revenue hours. The firm estimated the annual operating cost would be $3.17 million. However, the new program would be expected to replace almost all of the county’s existing paratransit services in the four proposed MOD zones, saving the county $1,026,480 a year.

Thus, a chart Tindale Oliver provided in its report on its study’s findings put net annual savings for SCAT at $351,418.

When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked whether any bus drivers would lose their jobs after implementation of the changes, Grogg replied, “That is not our plan at this point. We anticipate, based on the work [of Tindale Oliver], that the projected future number of drivers is around where we are at this current point.”

Through this month, Grogg told the board members on Oct. 21, staff will work with Tindale Oliver on developing what she called the “Fixed Route Run Cut.” Then, if all goes as expected, she continued, she would be back before the commissioners no later than January 2021 with a proposed contract related to market analysis and branding, as well as a MOD contract.

The latter, the staff memo explained, would be structured to last one year, with the option of four extensions. That will allow the SCAT staff “to assess the MOD service delivery and retain the option to provide the service in a different manner at the end of each [contract] term,” the memo said.

“Staff is preparing for communicating new service information and scheduling to the public,” a county staff memo noted. “To ensure that SCAT customers are aware of the new service plan and route modifications,” the memo said, “the information will be posted … on the SCAT website, via social media, on buses, at transfer stations, and as appropriate at SCAT bus stops.”

Details of the analysis

The county staff memo provided to the commissioners in advance of the Oct. 21 meeting pointed out that Tindale Oliver began a route optimization analysis and work plan on June 3.

The firm’s resulting report, dated Oct. 8, noted that in February, the commissioners directed the SCAT staff “to move forward with an implementation plan for a new SCAT Mobility Network.”

This graphic shows population and employment density in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Ridership is a key measure of success in the transit industry,” the study pointed out. From 2009 through 2011, it said, SCAT ridership increased steadily, climbing 13%. Then passenger counts reached a plateau between 2.8 million and 2.9 million; that came between 2011 and 2014, the study noted. By 2019, the study added, ridership had declined by 15% from the 2014 peak, settling at 2.4 million passengers in 2018 and 2019.

In working on plans for the proposed changes, Grogg told the commissioners, Tindale Oliver analyzed factors such as population density, job concentration, on-time performance, and running times. Grogg pointed out that demand for SCAT service is highest in north Sarasota County and along the spine of U.S. 41.

In regard to surveys: The Tindale Oliver report noted that when county residents were asked in the initial survey —available from July to August — how often they used SCAT services, “[T]he most frequent response was never by both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking participants, 44.1 percent and 50.0 percent respectively.”
The next most frequent response, the study said, was “[a] few times a year.”

When persons who do use SCAT were asked why, “visiting Sarasota attractions such as beaches and parks was the top answer selected by both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking participants, 26.2 percent and 50 percent, respectively.”

Next on the list of reasons, the study added, “was essential trips to the doctors or food shopping.”

This is another graph showing survey results. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Asked to look at a map and identify the areas where survey respondents felt SCAT services would be most valuable, both English- and Spanish-speaking persons “agreed that Downtown Sarasota was their top choice, 44.2 percent and 60.0 percent, respectively.”

The North Sarasota/Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport/University Parkway area was also popular among 37.1% of the English-speaking survey participants, the study said, while 40% of the Spanish-speaking respondents chose service to St. Armands/Lido Key Beach. “Other top picks include Venice/South Venice, Siesta Key, and the area [of] Fruitville [Road] to Clark Road,” the study pointed out.

As a result of the public outreach and analysis, the study said, a number of routes were targeted for elimination. Among them were Routes 4, 11, 16, 18 and 40. Route 100 would be converted to a “vanpool,” the study noted. Route 100 follows a track that takes it to downtown Sarasota, the airport and North Port.

Already, Routes 4, 11 and 18 have been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as SCAT’s webpages point out) Instead, on-demand, curb-to-curb service was implemented — a fact SCAT Director Grogg referenced during her Oct. 21 presentation.

This chart shows the estimated changes in costs, with implementation of the MOD services. Image courtesy Sarasota County

No changes have been planned for the operation of the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley.

As for the MOD zone service: Tindale Oliver proposed the Lido-Longboat keys service be in effect from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays and then end two hours earlier — 7 p.m. — on Sundays. The Siesta Key service would operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays and then end at 7 p.m. on Sundays. The North Port MOD would operate from 5 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays and then from 7:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. on Sundays.

Finally, the Venice-Englewood MOD would be available from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays and then from 7:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. on Sundays.

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